Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian teen romance boasts the sort of bona fides that are proving valuable in this most politicised edition of Cannes. The first Kenyan film to be selected for the festival, Rafiki has since been banned by the country’s film classification board “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”.
That sort of hyperventilating advance warning might lead some to expect something more transgressive than the sweet if rather contrived drama served up here. Yet, in a nation where no constitutional protections exist for LGBT people and sodomy carries a 14-year term sentence, even the most routine of gay dramas is an act of remarkable risk-taking. Kahiu’s film carries it off with confidence and polish.
Samantha Mugatsia stars as Kena, a tomboyish teen ambling around her provincial Kenyan hometown with her friend Blacksta while she awaits the school exam results that will determine whether or not she will begin training as a nurse. She works for her father John, a local shopkeeper who is running for office in the county assembly on a populist, “man of the people” ticket; his opponent is a slick businessman who seems rather more suited to the corridors of power. John has separated from Kena’s mother, a scripture teacher struggling over their breakup, who is appalled to learn – at church of all places – that John’s new partner is expecting a child. Kena is aware of the pregnancy already, having been tipped off by the town gossip Mama Atim, whose daughter is in love with Blacksta; he, it seems, only has eyes for Kena.
Just as in any village, salacious scuttlebutt is a valuable currency in a locale this local and nothing is more likely to provoke scandal than rumours around someone’s sexuality; in an early scene we witness Blacksta’s previously genial enough friend launch into a vicious homophobic tirade at a young gay man, while Kena and Blacksta hem and haw and generally try to pretend the whole thing isn’t happening. Kena is in dangerous territory, then, when she has her eye caught by Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a forthright, flamboyant girl with rainbow braids, who – disaster of all disasters – happens to be Kena’s father’s election rival’s daughter.
The two begin a tentative friendship that soon progresses into something more, carefully disguised as matiness (Rafiki means “friend” in English). Kisses are stolen in the darkened corners of clubs, and the abandoned camper van that the pair have made their hideout. Ziki, the extrovert, wants them to be more open about their relationship; Kena, wary of the likes of Mama Atim, preaches caution. Cautious too is the coy manner in which Kahiu, likely fearing a smackdown from the classification board, illustrates their eventual lovemaking (not that such circumspection made any difference to the censors).